What About Those Arminian Verses? Pt. 2

Last week we started talking about some common verses usually brought up when someone learns you are a Calvinist. We started it off with John 3:16, and now we’ll tackle 1 Timothy 2:4, in the same fashion.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (3-4)

So the contention with this verse is that it says that God desires all people to be saved, whereas Calvinism seems to say that God only saves (let alone desires) the elect. An interesting note here is that both the Calvinist and the Arminian will say that, since obviously not all people are saved, then there must be another thing which supersedes this desire. Where we differ is on what that thing is. For the Arminian, the answer is that while God desires all people to be saved, He finds the giving of us an autonomous free will a greater good.

That particular interpretation is not possible from just verses 3-4 on their own, so the attempt is made to draw that conclusion from the surrounding context of verses 1-6.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Fro there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Similar to last week’s verse, the attempt will be made to show that “all means all!” , and therefore, their interpretation is the correct one. However, like last week’s example, you sort of get whiplash if you read all the uses of “all” in the same way. Why would Paul encourage prayer for kings and people in high positions specifically, if those people would have already been covered under prayer for all people? More importantly, if God desires all to be saved, and Jesus gave himself a ransom for all, then that must mean that either: 1) all people are saved, or 2) the ransom of Jesus can fail. I haven’t met any Arminians personally who are comfortable with going with option 1, and the assertion that “all” in the final use only refers to Christians in general puts them in an awkward place of having to change the definition of “all” after all.

In contrast, I would say that Paul tells Timothy to remember to pray for all groups of people. Even someone as spiritually mature as Timothy would find it impossible to remember to pray for every individual on the planet, and I would argue my case that the “all” in verse one is referring to groups of people by pointing out that Paul then goes on to list groups of people. In particular, he lists groups that are easy to skip (in our day as much as in his!), those of the kings and all who are in high places. In modern terms we might say “hey, remember to pray for our president and those in congress, and the bosses at your jobs!” Now, if my understanding of “all” in verse 1 holds, then it would follow that the uses of “all” in verses 4 and 6 can have the same definition, leaving the context intact.

You might be thinking “wait a second, your last paragraph and your earlier assertion of Calvinists and Arminians both agreeing that God desires all to be saved don’t match up” , and that brings us to the theological term of the two wills of God. Essentially, this is the understanding that God does not delight in the death of wicked people, and indeed does love all people, yet the decree of electing some (instead of all) to salvation are actually compatible ideas. John Piper covers this idea extensively here. However, I’ll take a story used in that article that helped me to understand this concept a bit better.

Dabney uses an analogy from the life of George Washington taken from Chief-Justice Marshall’s Life of Washington. A certain Major André had jeopardized the safety of the young nation through “rash and unfortunate” treasonous acts. Marshall says of the death warrant, signed by Washington, “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy.” Dabney observes that Washington’s compassion for André was “real and profound”. He also had “plenary power to kill or to save alive.” Why then did he sign the death warrant? Dabney explains, “Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned, but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgments . . . of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation [the wide-angle lens].”

Washington genuinely cared for the Andre, but he had desires which superseded his love for Andre. The parallel is obvious enough to not need spelling out.

(Taking a week off for my travels, but will pick it back up in a couple weeks!)

– Jesse